The incident stems from a complaint that a soldier in the 5th Ranger Training Battalion filed after Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn provided a handout during a mandatory suicide prevention session at the University of North Georgia.
On one side of the handout, Lawhorn listed the Biblical approach to depression and also provided another handout listing non-religious sources for dealing with depression. Although Lawhorn stated clearly during the session that he wasn’t advocating for the Bible as the only approach, a single soldier declined to give Lawhorn the courtesy of a response, instead directly alerting the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, which then passed on the information to the Huffington Post.
The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers came out with a statement in response to the incident, declaring that evangelical Christians are fabricating persecution to gain sympathy, all the while forcing their religious views on others.
“When the military condones evangelism in mental health training, the epidemic will get worse not better,” a statement from the organization said.
Col. David Fivecoat immediately sent Chaplain Joseph Lawhorna “letter of concern,” telling him to cease his activities.
“As the battalion chaplain, you are entrusted to care for the emotional wellbeing of all soldiers in the battalion,” Fivecoat’s letter stated. “You, above all others, must be cognizant of the various beliefs held by diverse soldiers. During mandatory training briefings, it is imperative you are careful to avoid any perception you are advocating one system of beliefs over another.”
This letter will be listed on Lawhorn’s file for at least three years, and if Lawhorn contravenes any of the provisions, there will be consequences. So far, 33 soldiers have sent in letters of support for Lawhorn.
A lawyer from Liberty Institute, a non-profit organization which protects religious liberty, has stepped in to defend Lawhorn, arguing that Lawhorn was just doing his job to the best of his ability. Liberty Institute wants the letter withdrawn and says that Lawhorn’s activities are covered by section 533 of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which lists a “right of conscience clause.”
“He’d battled depression himself, and he knew where it could lead,” said lawyer Mike Berry, according to Army Times. “He just felt that if there was anything he could do to prevent even one suicide, he opened himself up and made himself vulnerable and shared some of his personal struggles, and he paid the price for that.”
Berry doesn’t want a complaint from just one soldier to derail training which many other soldiers have found beneficial.
“Had Chaplain Lawhorn known of this, he would have happily sat down with this soldier and answered any questions or concerns he or she had,” Berry said. “Unfortunately, Chaplain Lawhorn was not given this opportunity.”
“Chaplain Lawhorn was blindsided by this.”